EL-ARISH, Egypt - A fringe group so extreme that it worries even Egypt's Muslim ultraconservatives is secretly reviving itself with greater firepower and followers in the country's volatile Sinai Peninsula.
Followers of the group known as Takfir wil-Hijra, dubbed "Takfiris", lead secretive, isolated lives where anything and anyone that does not adhere to their limited interpretation of the Qur’an is deemed heretical. They dream of a puritanical Islamic state in Sinai.
While not all Takfiris are militants fighting jihad, or holy war, their ideology makes them easy pool to draw from for the armed groups believed to be behind attacks against Israel and Egypt's military in Sinai.
Takfir wil-Hijra has swelled in numbers in recent months, multiplying from a few hundred faithful in Sinai before last year's popular uprising to at least 4,500, living in the impoverished small towns of northern Sinai, according to security officials and local Bedouin tribal leaders. Their rise underlines how lawlessness after security agencies fell apart with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last year have fueled the spread of more hardline ideologies in Egypt.
The long festering woes in Sinai have come to the forefront as the Egyptian military wages a week-old expanded operation in the peninsula aimed at uprooting Islamic militants. The operation was sparked by a surprise attack earlier this month in which gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a checkpoint near the border, then attempted an attack into Israel.
Sinai's arid land of rugged mountains and desert roads dotted by towns and villages has long been neglected by the government, with investments directed to just a few tourist-friendly cities along its southern Red Sea tip. Its northern territory, which borders the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and the Gaza Strip, remained largely desolate, subsisting mostly on illegal trafficking of migrants and drugs as well as trade through underground tunnels to Gaza, largely sealed off by Israel and Egypt since the militant group Hamas took power there in 2007.
The Bedouin tribes that dominate the area have always been religiously conservative and traditional. But stricter Islamic doctrines have been gaining influence. In particular, the ultraconservative Salafi movement has grown more overt in Sinai, advocating an austere, literal interpretation of Islam similar to Saudi Arabia's, strict segregation of the sexes and a return to what it sees as the way of life of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Takfiris go much further, however, ready to shun even their own families who are not part of the movement, say other Bedouin. Efforts by The Associated Press to arrange interviews with members of the community through intermediaries were rejected.
"They don't see people. They don't even attend their own parents' funerals and say their parents are infidels," said Sheik Ouda Abolmalhous, a tribal elder in northern Sinai. Even tribal allegiances, which reign supreme in northern Sinai, come second to their loyalty to the group, he said.
If meat is not slaughtered at the hands of a Takfiri, the group's followers won't eat it, even if it's at their parents' table. Their children do not attend schools, whose system and teachings are seen as seditious.
The men do not attend traditional Friday prayers in mosques, whose preachers are seen as heretical. They do not support the Muslim Brotherhood or ultraconservative Salafis, whose participation in politics is seen as blasphemous.
The group's name underlines their isolationist ideology. In Arabic, Takfir means to declare someone an infidel. Hijra refers to the 7th Century flight of the prophet from his enemies in Mecca to take refuge in the nearby city of Medina — and thus metaphorically points to escaping a sinful world. Its original name was Jamaat al-Muslimeen, or "Society of the Muslims," with the implication they were the true Muslims.
Sheik Ouda said what most worries him about the Takfiris is that their isolation makes their capabilities hard to gauge.
"They're capabilities are not seen. It is like preparing an army to be on standby, ready for attack," Sheik Ouda said.
Sheik Arafat Khedr, a leader of the Swarka tribe in northern Sinai, said he tried to hold dialogues with the extremists five years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to bring them into the mainstream. He went mosque to mosque preaching against their ideology.
He says Takfiris are against the Egyptian government and state even before they are against neighbouring Israel.
"They have vowed that security forces will never return to the area. They see them as infidels and believe they need to cleanse Egypt first before Israel," he explained.
The Takfiri ideology was born in dark prison cells under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. Among the Muslim Brotherhood members detained at the time was Shukri Mustafa, who witnessed Islamic activists executed and tortured to death at the hands of police. After his release from prison, Mustafa broke off from the Brotherhood and spread his radical ideas, gathering followers mainly in Assiut and other cities of southern Egypt.
The Takfiris kidnapped and executed a former Egyptian minister who was also a Muslim cleric when their demands were not met by the government in 1977. The following year the group's leader Mustafa was executed in prison under President Anwar Sadat.
Decades later, the organization's structure is unclear and is apparently without a leader. Many of the group's followers, for example, do not know one another.
Security officials and tribal leaders say a few dozen of the group's militants fled from prison during the 18-day revolt against Mubarak, during which the police force was overrun by angry protesters seeking to topple his regime. And in the absence of police in the streets since, others were more easily recruited to the movement.
Their popularity in Sinai has been fueled over the years by a lack of jobs, poverty and government repression.
After a militant bombing against tourists at a Red Sea resort in southern Sinai seven years ago, the state began taking a tougher stance toward Bedouin. Mubarak's feared State Security Services took over security duties in the peninsula from the military intelligence agency, and it began a wave of arrests and torture of young Bedouin suspected of being Takfiris, though the connection between the movement and the bombings was not clear.
Security agents rounded up tribal elders and raid Bedouins' homes, arresting wives and daughters to put pressure on suspects to surrender but in the process angering many in the community.
As a result, some tribal sheiks turned against the security agencies and shielded Takfiris even if they themselves were not members, said a former high-level official in northern Sinai. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
"The Takfiri looks to the nation as a whole as heretical," said Mohamad Jabr, who was once a Takfiri before turning to Salafi movement.
But he said "oppression, punishing people for turning to Islamic law, stripping people of their basic human rights and police harassment gave birth to terrorism."